Being Is Believing

Book review of A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values and Jewish Identity by Alan Montefiore

Books Philosophy

Alan Montefiore has been continuously engaged in teaching, writing and promoting philosophy for over 50 years; and in this short memoir, he has given us a fascinating account (argued with the characteristically crisp precision one should expect from a philosopher) of how the problems of personal identity, and in particular of Jewish identity, with which he has been grappling all his life, have been sharpened and clarified by his own immersion in the philosophical controversies of his time, and in particular the vexed question of how a distinction between facts and values can be drawn.

What is immediately striking in this account is how far Montefiore, in spite of respectful acknowledgements to his former teachers, could be said to have outgrown the influence of the Oxford school of Anglo-Saxon philosophy in which he was brought up, and embraced instead what he describes as an anti-compartmentalising view of philosophy’s proper role and purpose. Politely but firmly, he dismisses the Sisyphean efforts in which many of his peers were unproductively engaged, trying to show how the distinction between statements of facts and judgments of value could be made hard and fast; these various illusory “proofs”, whether they relied on a logically self-consistent symbolic language that stood for real language, or sought a solution by analysing the differences between the logic of indicatives and that of imperatives, or between rules of inference and those of implication, all suffered from the same inherent defect: they presupposed a precision in the definition of terms, which cannot be inferred from the way such terms are used in real life. They relied in short on what Wittgenstein called the private language argument. Montefiore however insists that terms such as value, fact, norm and identity each have meanings that shift in accordance with the form of life, and provide the indispensable context in which such terms are used and understood.

The more interesting question then becomes: what happens when forms of life, each having their own way of framing a distinctive set of values, norms and obligations come into conflict with one another? Here Montefiore puts flesh on abstract philosophical bones by discussing in some detail his own struggles with the complex question of Jewish identity. Judaism is a strange hybrid: not quite a religion, because a Jew, born of a Jewish mother, can abandon his or her faith and practices and still remain a Jew, and not quite an ethnic group either, because a convert of any race can become a Jew by voluntarily submitting to “the yoke of Torah”.

As Montefiore explains, this distinctive duality, a unique convergence of universal and particular, has allowed various forms of Jewish identity to take hold in a secular age. These identities have either traded off the universality, by re-defining Judaism in post-Enlightenment subjectivist terms as “essentially” engaged in upholding a set of universal ethical norms, à la Kant, without the need for onerous ancient rules and restrictions; or they have traded off the particularity, and of the sociological concept of Jews as a people, a culture or a nation. Either way, Montefiore recognises these secularising forms of life, each with its distinctive version of Jewish identity, as somewhat unstable, and dependent, as he puts it, “on the continuing existence of a core group committed to the practice of at least some version of Judaism as a religion.” At the same time, he re-affirms the obligations of the religiously committed “to be prepared to recognise the freedom of non-practising Jews to take their own stand in respect of all such obligations without thereby risking the loss of their Jewish identity”.

This in essence is Montefiore’s solution to the dilemmas arising from conflicts between forms of life, and may be summed up in the phrase, “live and let live.” Secularists need to acknowledge how far their own attachment to the doctrine that values are subjective and separable from facts is itself dogmatic and unprovable; and the religious community needs to ensure that “it has room within its structures for the concept of an individual subject capable, and in the last resort, uniquely responsible for determining its own core identity as the person that he or she essentially is.”